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The neon skylines of Japan blaze like the fiery red sun of the nation’s flag. The name the Japanese have for their own home, Nippon, translates to “sun-origin,” and is the source of the moniker Land of the Rising Sun. Japan is technically an archipelago of over sixty-eight hundred islands, and vastly diverse topography means that there is no “typical” Japanese climate. From the ski slopes and powdery snow of Hokkaido in the north to the almost-tropical beaches of Okinawa, the full range of weather and landscapes are represented.
Of course, Japan is generally a land of contrasts. The glass-and-steel edifices of luxury condominiums overlook tumbledown cottages, and the hippest boutiques and cafes in big cities bump shoulders with temples and shrines. History and technology are revered equally here. You can take in a sumo performance or lunch in the company of geisha and maiko and then hop on the bullet train and zoom hundreds of miles away to the next adventure.
Staying in Japan usually involves lodging at a traditional ryokan, or inn. The nicest of these are as comfortable and luxurious as any Western-style lodging, but with the spare beauty that is so typical of the culture. Public transportation is some of the best in the world. The food is as utterly delicious at curbside food stalls as in one of the country’s famed Michelin-rated restaurants. Touring Japan can feel like a whirlwind experience at times, but the rushing tide of life is one in which you will be happy to get swept away.
Top Sights in Japan
The soaring skyscrapers of the Shinjuku district are an iconic landmark of Japan’s capital, glittering and ultra-modern. Over twelve million people live in Tokyo, making it the most populous urban center in the world! The sights, sounds, and bustle of this mega-metropolis will take your breath away. You can shop for haute couture and Mikimoto pearls in the Ginza district, and dine at the most exquisite five-star restaurants when you are done—or duck into a funky streetside sushi bar and grab your plates of choice off a conveyor belt. Faddish fashion reigns in the crazy-colorful Harajuku district, where sipping tea at a cafe on Sunday watching the young trendmakers flaunt their trendy plumage is nothing short of high entertainment. Of course, this is Japan. Tokyo’s traditional side is no less enjoyable than it’s shiny 21st-century attractions, whether your pleasure is found marveling at the splendor of the Imperial Palace, where the emperor lives, or lying beneath the cherry trees in Ueno Park in the springtime. From Tokyo Disneyland to origami classes, wild nightlife to sumo, the world’s largest fish market to a world-class museum of otaku treasures, one could explore this hectic, enormous city for weeks without encountering the same things twice.
The cultural capital of Japan welcomes you with open arms! Many common visions of Japanese tradition are to be found here. Perhaps none are so well-known as the geisha and maiko of Kyoto, resplendent in their kimono and lavish hairstyles with stark white painted faces and crimson lips. You can dine alongside these highly trained, graceful beauties at an elegant kaiseke dinner, or take part in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Visit the world-famous Miho Museum, designed by I M Pei, or visit one of the country’s most famous shrines: Kinkaku-ji or the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Try some matcha ice cream, or sup on one of the area’s famous vegetarian dinners. Courses on Zen meditation are widely available for those looking to infuse their lives with some serenity. You will notice a stark difference between the old parts of the city and the newer, more modern ones where glass-and-steel wins over wood and tiled roofs. The duality of Kyoto is reflective of Japan’s constant interplay of ancient and modern, appropriate for the city that was the nation’s capital for over one thousand years.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial is a hauntingly beautiful, lasting tribute to a dark time in Japanese history. Considering the fact that, in the minds of many international visitors, the name of Hiroshima is synonymous with the atomic bomb dropped on the city in 1945, the memorial is a logical must-see when in town. The structure encompasses Genbaku Dome, the only building left standing in the vicinity after the devastation cleared. Outside the various monuments and sites erected to celebrate peace, however, Hiroshima has blossomed into a bustling city center with vibrant nightlife and an outstanding reputation for great food. For those who appreciate the beauty in getting from point “A” to point “B,” there is the Hiroshima City Transportation Museum, or the Mazda Museum—the latter allows you to view the assembly lines where the cars are made, see concept cars, and tour the manufacturer’s extensive campus. The waterfalls of the Mitaki-dera temple are just one part of its immense beauty, as the statues and gardens are also postcard-perfect. From Hiroshima, catch a ferry to Miyajima Island and soak in the majestic loveliness of the floating Edo-era torii gates, considered one of the best views in Japan.
The symmetry, beauty, and height of Mt. Fuji have been dazzling visitors for ages. Both as a sightseeing attraction and a climb, it remains a perennially popular destination for tourists and a symbol of Japanese culture seen in countless photographs and artistic depictions. Almost a quarter million people brave the climb up Japan’s highest mountain each year, but many more come simply to take in the sights and enjoy the resort environment at Fuji’s base. The mountain, an active volcano, has spiritual significance in the Shinto faith, and a proliferation of gorgeous shrines and temples in the area is testament to that fact. Those staying at lower altitudes can enjoy the local scenery of thatched-roof cottages and rustic, wooded hiking paths. Soba restaurants, boutiques, minor tourist attractions, and small cafes dot the roads leading to Fuji, ensuring that you won’t go without entertainment if you are waiting for someone to come back down from the peaks!
Second only to Tokyo in significance and third in size, Osaka is a sprawling city in which history and technology collide in the best possible ways. Possibly one of the only places on Earth where 17th century castles compete for space with a Universal Studios theme park, Osaka’s size and huge variety of things can be overwhelming. One thing is for sure… if you work up an appetite, you’ll have no problem satisfying it. The city boasts an astounding total of 108 Michelin stars, including three 5-star establishments, but the eats offered at the countless food stalls overlooking the streets are no less formidable. One can climb aboard the massive red Ferris wheel crowning the Hep Five department store and get a birds-eye view of the city, or dive into Dotonbori, the frenzied center of Osaka nightlife. The National Museum of Art features an eye-popping entrance, but the actual exhibits are all underground! You can catch the beloved Hanshin Tigers playing a baseball game, sample some craft beer (it’s a burgeoning trend here), pop in on the Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan, or chow down on pork buns in the national gardens. Come hungry for adventure when you arrive in Osaka!
Long before Japan became a tour de force of modern-day travel, Hakone was one of the country’s premier destinations. This scenic mountain retreat in the Kanto region is replete with hot springs and breathtaking mountain views, as well as an authentic countryside “feel” that has enchanted visitors for hundreds of years. A relaxing soak in the onsens, or hot springs of Hakone is a must-do item on any visitor’s list. The active volcano activity of Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park is not only to thank for the abundance of hot springs, but also makes for plenty of visitor interest. The hilly terrain is also conducive to some excellent hiking. Popular trails are those that circle Lake Ashi, from which, on a clear day, you can see the peaks of Mt. Fuji. Tranquil Hakone Jinja Shrine is nestled on the lake’s shore. Also within the parklands is the Hakone Open Air Museum, which includes a Picasso exhibition among its collections.
|Primary Airports: Osaka International Airport (ITM); Narita International Airport (NRT)|
|Government: Constitutional Monarchy and Parliamentary Democracy|
|Currency: Yen (¥)|
|Population: 127,960,000 (2011 est.)|
|Electricity: 100V/50Hz (American plug)|
|Time Zone: UTC + 9|
Japan Travel Reviews
A Tale of Two Cities in Japan
When I decided to spend three weeks in Japan over the summer, my two destinations were the cities of Tokyo and Hiroshima. The majority of my time was spent in Tokyo, for there is no end to the entertaining exploration that this metropolis provides. My hostel was located in the Taito district, near the ancient Asakusa temple and shopping district. This section of Tokyo is a window into the past as many of the buildings and temples are ancient national landmarks and cultural treasures. For a taste of modern Japan, I eagerly lost myself in the Harajuku entertainment district. The avant-garde and eccentric youth of Japan swarm this shopping center in droves while proudly displaying their fantastically unique fashion. The most flamboyant shoppers were even eager to pose for photos. My third major stop was the Tokyo National Museum, the oldest museum in the country. The glitter of modern Tokyo stops at the ancient Shinto gate, and an air of ageless refinement fills each enormous room. This museum cannot be missed for anyone with an interest in the historical origins of Japan. It was my own desire to learn more about the nation’s history that led me to the city of Hiroshima. While this city was victim of great tragedies during World War 2, the community has long since recovered and flourished. Seemingly endless beautiful public parks adorn this calm, friendly city. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial has become a major site for international peace campaigns. This city provided the serene, balanced and graceful Japan that I was expecting, which Tokyo, the massive party city, no longer truly represents.
A Brief and Fulfilling Trip to Japan
My husband and I were very fortunate to have the time and money to travel to Japan last fall. It was my second trip there but his first. We only had 10 days, but that was enough to visit Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Hiroshima. Once we left Narita airport, we took advantage of the extensive and efficient public train systems to visit other cities. Even only knowing a few words of Japanese, it is relatively easy to go almost anywhere in Japan. When we got stuck, we found the Japanese to be very helpful to us.
The highlights in Tokyo were the Ginza and Yoyogi Park where we could catch up on the latest trends in technology and fashion styles, respectively. The Osaka Science Museum was awe-inspiring as was the birds-eye view of the city from the Udema Sky Building. In Nagoya, we sampled the best of Japanese cuisine including takoyaki, which is octopus dumplings. Before heading home, we had time for a couple of days in Hiroshima. The visit to the Peace Park was sobering, but seeing the nearby restored Hiroshima Castle raised out spirits.
After touring the Castle, we walked the banks of the placid Ota River. We spent the final day of our trip relaxing and taking in the sights of this beautiful city and its delicious food. Before boarding our mid-day flight, we enjoyed a bento box lunch. Even in the airport, real Japanese food is scrumptious.
Adventuring in Japan
This past fall, my best friend and I finally took the plunge and traveled to Japan. This is something we had both been dreaming about for some time, and the time was right, and this trip did not disappoint. One of the most memorable days for me was when we visited the area of Gion in Kyoto. This is a gorgeous area filled with wooden temples and traditional Japanese lanterns. Hanami-koji street provided a restful stop for lunch, and is definitely the street you want to visit for a variety of mid-day dining options. The most culturally immersive part of our experience was watching the beautiful Geishas strolling about. We soon learned that Gion is the Geisha capital of Japan.
Tokyo was definitely my favorite city in Japan, and it provided a real contrast to our time spent in Gion, Kyoto. The best way to describe Tokyo is that it resembles New York City, but on steroids. Tokyo nightlife is absolutely electric. The super-sized department stores stay open super late and observing the street fashion feels like you are at New York fashion week. I most enjoyed visiting Tokyo Towers, though. We went at the end of our stay in Tokyo and the Mori Tower allows you a 360 degree bird’s eye view of this breathtaking city. The view is one I am not soon to forget. Though I didn't use one this time, if we were to go back I would probably use a tour company as I felt like time went too quickly.
A New Year in Japan
My college roommate and I traveled to Japan for two weeks over the new year. We flew into Narita airport and took the train into Tokyo proper. The trains were clean, on time, and subtitled in English. Being college students studying Japanese, we opted to travel on our own without the use of a tour company. Instead, we constructed the trip on our own, forsaking an expensive hotel for a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn that fit much better into our college budget. There, we shared a small room with two futons, which we folded out over the tatami straw mats to sleep at night and folded back up during the day. Most of the food we enjoyed was street food from small vendors, as well as surprisingly good Japanese-style food from gas stations called konbini. We often had breakfasts of onigiri rice balls before exploring the city of Tokyo on foot and by train. We frequented many ramen shops and visited the local hot springs, called onsen. The parks of Tokyo are beautiful, and we'd often pick up a roasted yam from a park vendor as a warm snack while we wandered. On New Year's Eve, we attended a splendid festival at Asakusa Temple in Tokyo, and on New Year's Day, we toured the imperial palace, which is only open two days a year. We were greatly impressed by the cleanliness and beauty of the city, and the people were polite, helpful, and very friendly to Americans.
Japan - best trip ever
We visited Tokyo, Yokohama, Kyoto in 2 weeks and we needed more time for areas we missed
For the family, the best was Kyoto.
All areas were so very safe even at night. Every one was helpful and polite. And it is a photographer paradise!